Are hybrid embryos an ethical step too far? – The Big Questions

December 31, 2007

Following the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s decision to approve the creation of ‘animal-human’ hybrid embryos, or “cybrids”, the inaugural episode of the BBC’s new ethics show The Big Questions (BBC1, Sunday Sept 9th 2007, 10 am) included a fifteen minute debate on the topic. The programme provides some useful material for discussing the issue.

This initial post outlines the thrust of the discussion.  Interested readers are strongly encouraged to look at the extended commentary Science and ethics of cybrids – reflections on some recent media coverage, which includes not only a fuller account of the exchanges on The Big Questions, but also draws upon a similar discussion on The Guardian’s Science Weekly Podcast of September 10th. The relevance of a number of recent scientific papers on the biology of stem cells is also considered.  You may also like to watch a BBC news report following the announcement – go to their News page ‘Human-animal’ embryo green light and follow the ‘Watch’ link on the right-hand side. Read the rest of this entry »

Genetic testing: would you want to know? – The Killer in Me

December 29, 2007

The Killer in Me illustrates just how far genetic testing for disease has developed. Testing for conditions caused by mutation in a single gene has been possible for some while, and examples have been considered previously in relation to programmes in the Bitter Inheritance series, e.g. Huntington’s disease (Episode 5) and Gorlin Syndrome (Episode 4). In The Killer in Me, four celebrities agree to undergo pioneering genetic tests for conditions that are under the influence of several different genes and environmental factors, such as diet. It is promised that the battery of tests will indicate their potential risk, i.e. their predisposition, to several common diseases, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. The tests are supervised by Paul Jenkins, a Senior Clinical Researcher at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine and the co-founder of the company ‘Genetic Health’. As he explains, “We know the environmental influences that can predispose to disease, now we are able for the first time to start to determine your genetic predisposition to those diseases” (00:01:39).

The decisions about which tests to take, and the celebrities’ responses to the results of those tests, offer insights into the ethical dilemmas posed by screening. GMTV presenter Fiona Philips re-examines her mother’s past medical history, which included both breast cancer and Alzheimer’s which unfortunately led to her death. She reflects on the terrible ordeal her mother suffered for eight years, and wonders what actions she would take if the test presented that she was at high risk of Alzheimer’s (00:02:49-00:05:17 and 00:17:50-00:19:10*). Read the rest of this entry »

“Masters of intelligence”? – Visions of the Future (1)

December 19, 2007

In this, the first of three episodes, the BBC4 mini-series Visions of The Future examines how some of the scientific advances of the 20th and early-21st century may shape our future. Specifically, presenter Michio Kaku – Professor of physics and co-creator of string field theory – posits that we are on the brink of an “historic transition from the the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery” (00:01:20). He suggests that having “created artificial intelligence”, “unravelled the molecule of life” and “unlocked the secrets of matter” (all 00:01:03), science of the future will be concerned with more than mere observation of nature. It will be concerned with its mastery.





Thus, while the individual programmes each explore human mastery of one of three key areas (intelligence, DNA and matter), the series as a whole maintains a consistent theme: that though this mastery offers us “unparalleled freedom and opportunities” (00:57:47) it also presents us with “profound challenges and choices” (00:01:46). Kaku refers to “key social issues” that will be raised by future science and technology as topics we must “start to address today” (00:57:59). In the first episode Kaku introduces a number of developments stemming from “ubiquitous computing” (00:06:19), many of which intersect with relatively new areas of debate in bioethics. Ubiquitous computing – or ubiquitous technology – is the view that powerful computer microchips will soon be everywhere. They will be such a taken-for-granted feature of every product we use or buy, that they will become largely unnoticed and invisible. While obvious applications of this include “intelligent” cars and roads, health care monitoring technologies might also become commonplace. For example, Kaku suggests that “wearable computers” (00:07:40) in our clothes will monitor our health from the outside, and that by swallowing an aspirin-sized pill with “the power of a PC and a video camera” (00:08:45) the health of our internal organs might also be continuously assessed.

However, as interviewee Susan Greenfield notes, the biggest changes may come when “ubiquitous technology converges with … the internet” (00:09:11); changes which “raise some rather disturbing questions” (00:18:00). These focus on issues of identity (loss of identity, multiple identities), the preference of virtual social networks over ‘real’ social networks, and the impact upon family life. As Greenfield further comments, current experience with virtual reality worlds like Second Life and online gaming, suggests changes are already taking place in these areas.





For Kaku, however, it is in AI (artificial intelligence) that “an evolutionary leap that will profoundly challenge the human condition” (00:22:08) is now taking place. While he does describe the types of monitoring technologies noted above as machine intelligences, it is in the move towards intelligent machines that the future lies. It is these machines that raise a number of important questions with respect to the relatively new bioethical area of robot ethics, including:

  • To what extent can machines really be regarded as intelligent? How does this compare to human intelligence? Will humans always be able to tell the difference between a human and an intelligent machine?
  • What types of relationships might humans have with machines, and what principles – ethical or otherwise – might this be based upon?
  • To what extent could (or should) the human form be mechanically enhanced? At what if any point would a mechanically enhanced human cease to be human and become machine?

These questions also intersect with long-standing debates in philosophy and other areas of ethics, and have also been explored in popular science books and TV fiction (see the BioethicsBytes posts on Kevin Warwick’s I, Cyborg and the Cybermen episodes of BBC’s Doctor Who). For example, phenomenologists, epistemologists and AI experts have long debated whether machines will ever display “human level intelligence” (00:29:18) – including such social skills as “getting the joke” (00:37:52) – or whether they will be limited to merely mimicking some aspects of it. Kaku explores this question with commentators and AI researchers like Ray Kurzweil and Rosalind Picard, and focuses on emotion, which he suggests is “critical for higher intelligence” (00:36:58). Current work in ‘affective computing’ is directed towards developing robots with some such capacities, though as technology forecaster Paul Saffo notes, “you’ll know its not really intelligent” (00:35:51).




Similarly, questions around how we might relate to intelligent machines resonate with debates in animal ethics. Kaku notes the tendency to anthropomorphise robots that appear intelligent. He refers to his own Roomba robot, and says of the Japanese robot Asimo “I know Asimo is a machine, but I find myself relating to it as if it were a real person” (00:32:33). This introduces one of the key issues in the new area of robot ethics: at what point might machines come to be seen as ‘persons’ rather than mere ‘things’, and – if this does occur – should they be granted robot rights? (see for example Sawyer. 2007. “Robot Ethics”. Science Magazine, Vol. 318, pp. 1037). Extending this further, Visions of the Future considers what relationship we humans might have with machines whose intelligence greatly exceeded our own. This discussion is predicated on the possibility that intelligent machines might “outgrow human control” (00:40:15), and examines whether this would be based on harmony or conflict. Here the focus is not on how we will treat the machines of the future, but on how they might treat us.

However, as the final sections of this episode of Visions of the Future highlight, the distinction and opposition of the categories ‘human’ and ‘machine’ implied above may have limited relevance in the future. Alongside the drive to create intelligent machines, Kaku notes growing interest in the mechanical enhancement of human intelligence: “as machines become more like humans, humans may become more like machines” (00:43:36). Further, we are asked “precisely how many of our natural body parts could we replace with artificial ones before we begin to loose our sense of being human?” (00:55:27).





These concerns echo several of the dominant themes in posthumanism: the philosophical trend and cultural movement that both observes and advocates moving beyond a traditional – or classical – modern conception of the nature of humanity. In the form of transhumanism, this approach embraces the notion of ‘upgraded’ human, the cyborg, as the next – inevitable – evolutionary step. In may ways, Visions of the Future functions to outline, both the steps in the posthumanist argument, and it ultimate endpoint. It highlights how technologies currently used for therapeutic purposes could be used to enhance various human capacities (the examples used here are mood, memory and intelligence), however, that those who choose not to take part in this ‘revolution’ will find themselves severely disadvantaged. Paul Saffo notes “all revolutions have winners and losers, this revolution is no exception … the big losers are the people who say they don’t want to get involved. They are the ones who are going to discover that being a little bit out of touch will have some unpleasant consequences” (00:56:39).

Overall this futuristic first episode of the Visions of the Future series sets a tone of expectation – both of the future and the next two episodes. It is engaging and useful, both in its presentation of the science, and the questions it raises regarding the social and ethical implications of ‘the intelligence revolution’.

The first of three episodes of Visions of the Future was first broadcast on BBC4 on November 5th 2007 at 21:00 (TRILT identifier: 00741D95).

“A DNA-Driven World” – Craig Venter’s vision for synthetic biology

December 14, 2007

On Monday 4th December, BBC1 broadcast the 32nd annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture featuring Dr J. Craig Venter and his vision of “a DNA-driven world” (00:03:54).


David Dimbleby introduces The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2007: Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World (BBC1, Dec 4 2007, 22:35)

As David Dimbleby, son of the late Richard Dimbleby, states in his introduction to the lecture, Venter is widely recognised as one of the “pioneers” (00:01:32) in this area. His achievements include the founding of Celera Genomics – a somewhat controversial contributor to the Human Genome Project; The Institute of Genomic Research; and more recently Synthetic Genomics – a company whose work has “opened the door to the creation of the first artificial life form on the planet” (00:00:58). According to Dimbleby, the purpose of the lecture was to hear “simply, clearly and without gimmicks” (00:01:24) what synthetic biology might hold for the future.


Dr J. Craig Venter presents The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2007: Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World (BBC1, Dec 4 2007, 22:35)

Venter describes synthetic biology as “life which is forged not by Darwinian evolution but created by human intelligence” (00:05:54), and while his lecture culminates in consideration of artificial lifeforms “capable of creating energy”(00:03:26) and designed to “combat climate change” (00:03:39) he covers a number of additional topics. These include the need to build a “scientifically-literate society” (00:05:24) and the “need to move toward a preventative philosophy” (00:15:20) in medicine and health care. A full transcript of the lecture is available on the BBC website here.

Throughout the lecture, Venter only mentions the ethical issues implicit within his work once and specifically in the context of the process of ongoing ethical review at Synthetic Genomics, a “unique and significant feature”(00:38:13) which he suggests is often “overlooked by the news media” (00:38:17). Indeed Venter himself instigated the assessment of the ethical implications of synthetic biology and the creation of ‘minimal genome’ organisms in the laboratory (see Cho et al., Science, 10 December 1999: Vo. 286. No. 5447, pp. 2082-2090). Within this assessment, a number of ethical issues raised by synthetic biology are identified including:

  • the investigation of the ‘minimal genome’ as contributing to reductionism
  • the creation of artificial life as an example to scientists ‘playing God’ in the laboratory

These issues are discussed at length by Cho et al. (1999), however, within his lecture Dr Venter appears to suggest that ethical concerns associated with such organisms may be addressed simply by “strict containment” (00:38:38) and a designed inability to survive outside of the laboratory. Given this, the 2007 Dimbleby lecture might be best used as a resource for detailed information on the kinds of problems artificial life and synthetic biology could be used to address, particularly in relation to bioremediation and the production of green energy. However, any bioethical discussion of the issues they raise might be best informed by alternative sources, for example Cho et al. (1999) or Rinaldi (2004) “A new Code for Life”, EMBO reports, Vol 5, No 4: pp. 336-339.

The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2007: Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World was first broadcast on BBC1 on December 4th 2007 at 22.35 (TRILT identifier: 00778B33). The programme is 45 minutes in length.